Smashing Pockets

I have consistently been moved to write about Arsenal’s attack this season because it is, to my mind, the most intriguing area of the squad. The forward line contains a lot of top class players but it is not straightforward to envisage how they fit together- this is not just a mathematical conundrum either, it’s a question of tactical balance.

I have written about it so often that we are past the point of embedding links neatly into the text. It’s now a link farm and every week it hatches new eggs. On Sunday, Arsenal started Danny Welbeck, Alex Lacazette, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi together. Arsenal’s three big ticket attackers- Mesut Özil, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and Aaron Ramsey, missed out for various reasons.

Yet the link between Iwobi, Mkhitaryan, Welbeck and Lacazette looked far more natural than the uneasy sight of Mesut Özil starved of oxygen on the right, Aaron Ramsey struggling to connect play in an advanced role and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang too often asked to become involved in the build-up on the left hand side.



This means that Arsenal’s right hand side gets a bit of water and light. But I don’t necessarily think Iwobi is transformed, it’s just that his attributes are better suited to Emery’s idea of attack. While many of us clamoured for the Gunners to sign a natural wide player this summer, it didn’t ever appear to be on the club’s radar.

I would imagine that Emery didn’t share our urgency for such a player because he doesn’t really have much of a history of playing with wingers. (See how quickly he isolated Lucas Moura at PSG). He likes for his wide players to come in-field and play in the half space, with a full-back creating an overload just wide of him. This suits Iwobi’s style perfectly.

上赛季,尼日利亚遭遇温格的球队混乱的身份危机的东西。他不太打听到一个10或8或边锋,但假设一个捏造的角色,他是这些东西全部,没有。Emery’s idea for attack is a little more structured, but crucially, the quasi-wide forward role is tailor-made for Iwobi, it asks him to be neither a winger nor a central attacker, but to play definitely in the space between those two poles.

He enjoyed an excellent spell of form at the beginning of the 2016-17 season, when played as a kind of butler to the left of Sanchez and Walcott. His job was to take the ball from the left and move it towards his more assertive attacking partners. Almost like a kind of creative water carrier. In Emery’s system, he has license to drop into the half space to collect the ball.

Crucially, this role does not demand a final ball or a finish from him either, it just asks that he oils the wheels of the attack by finding what Adrian Clarke described as “smashing pockets” of space. For much the same reason, Henrikh Mkhitaryan has been a potent creative force during his appearances this season. Like Iwobi, he sometimes suffers from identity crisis.

他是not quite a winger, wide forward or a number 10. Emery’s structure means he can operate somewhere between the right wing and the centre. I wrote something similar about Danny Welbecka few weeks ago。他是a tactically flexible player capable of following instruction, but again, he doesn’t seem to be lethal enough to lead the line and not quite cute enough to be a productive wide forward.

What he is is a great foil- an ideal second striker and he was able to play a hybrid role against Fulham on Sunday. He was the key to the teammoving between 442 and 4222, he has the physical and mental qualities to play this kind of servicing role. That was the striking aspect of the Fulham match, that, talent wise, this was very much a second string attack yet it seemed to function more comfortably than Arsenal’s A list.


Ramsey, Özil and Aubameyang are also more instinctive footballers than the quartet that started on Sunday. They all operate a little bit outside of the system, they improvise. Every team needs this quality in their attack, every team needs a maverick for well-schooled defences (Fulham’s is not) and for days when the sun does not always shine.


阿森纳叙事是一个移动的盛宴at the moment, all of the ‘data’ we are accumulating from games is totally new and therefore, it feels like a stream of constant Eureka moments (and, well, whatever the opposite of a ‘Eureka moment’ is too). The goal posts are shifting constantly, which is probably exacerbated by Emery’s ‘horses for courses’ approach where the game plan and sometimes even the formation, is geared towards the opponent.



When a new manager comes in- a change the majority of fans and pundits thirsted for- it is easy to understand why there is a lot of “post-hoc” analysis about revitalised players, changed personalities and the fact that Arsenal’s winning run is entirely down to Emery banning fruit juice at London Colney.

I think the truth is that the players are largely doing the same things they’ve always done, but some are more suited to the manager’s structure than others and some are playing roles they are comfortable in, while others are not.

Andy Kelly, Mark Andrews and myself will be doing some promotional events in London for our book ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ in the run-up to Christmas, with book signing events featuring the likes of Liam Brady, Bob Wilson and Brian Talbot. You can find out more about those events这里你可以买到书的副本这里